In her dark comedy The Savages, writer/director Tamara Jenkins crafts a situation that feels terrifyingly plausible. Pseudo-intellectual siblings Wendy and Jon Savage (Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman) find themselves forced to care for their ailing, demented dad, Lenny (Philip Bosco), even though he abandoned them years ago. Even if you get along swimmingly with your family, one day you may have to deal with a decrepit parent -- and then be the decrepit parent a few decades on.
In her superb sophomore film following her 1998 debut, Slums of Beverly Hills, Jenkins adopts a perspective that's at once tender and merciless. We laugh at Wendy and Jon as they behave childishly and become reluctant caregivers, but we also empathize with their unhappiness. Bosco's subtle performance doesn't make things easy for them or the audience, as he's neither a raging monster nor a confused victim. Mostly he's just absent, like he's been throughout his children's whole lives.
The Savages exceeds the material's already high potential thanks to the work of Hoffman and Linney, who interplay beautifully and offer a kind of duet of self-absorption. Hoffman's clearly at the top of his already formidable game in 2007, while Linney's acting is a masterpiece of wicked detail. Wendy's in love with her self-image as both good daughter and an artist, as we see in the way she lingers over the word "subversive" when she writes one of her countless grant applications. She's also willing to lie, only half-convincingly, to impress people or win sympathy. When she has a hissy fit at Lenny's nursing home, we realize that for her, trying to be good is a form of egotism. It's like the flip side of Shirley MacLaine's "Give my daughter the shot!" tantrum from Terms of Endearment.
Jenkins only overplays the scenes of an Arizona retirement community as gauzily photographed heaven. True, it sets up a funny contrast with the nursing home Jon picks for Lenny near his home in Buffalo, which Wendy perceives as being scarcely better than an ice floe. But kitschy music and sun-shiney cinematography feel like someone's too concerned that audiences won't recognize The Savages as a comedy. Such worries are unfounded: The Savages' mix of humor, insight and fear of mortality prove of a piece with Jonathan Franzen's zeitgeist-defining novel The Corrections, only delivered in a fresh, purely cinematic fashion. The only predicament worse than Wendy's and Jon's would be Lenny's, or so The Savages' incisive spirit makes us believe.
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